You should approach Joyce’s Ulysses as the illiterate Baptist preacher approaches the Old Testament: with faith – William Faulkner
I was twenty-five when I first read Ulysses. I’d been told not to ‘touch it’ until I reached the magic quarter of a century and so I’d waited dutifully for the flame of wisdom to flutter like the Holy Ghost over my twenty-five year old head. By that time, I was married and working as a radiographer at the Mater Misericordiae Hospital in Eccles Street, Dublin. This was the first of many Joycean coincidences that have occurred in my life. It was a way in. I was actually on Eccles Street, I could follow Bloom’s footsteps from the building site that was now No. 7, down to Dorset Street and beyond. I journeyed home through Sandymount on the DART train, thinking of Stephen on the beach.
No. 7 Eccles Street had been demolished but the doorway was to be inserted into the new private hospital that the nuns were building on the site. My very first morning in the X-ray department, I rushed into the smoke-filled staff changing-room to look for help because I’d found a man collapsed in a heap on the street outside the hospital. A blue-eyed smoking radiographer in a very fancy petticoat assured me that the collapsed man was ‘only a wino’ and that I would get used to seeing plenty of them on Eccles Street.
It was the mid-eighties and AIDS had arrived in Dublin via heroin needles. Cheap heroin flooded the European market after the Shah left Iran and it was the notorious Dublin criminal family, The Dunnes, who brought heroin into Dublin to their own deprived people. Like Cork City, the class divide in Dublin was roughly between the North and South sides of the city. When I was a student at St Vincent’s on the Southside, one of the radiographers called AIDS ‘a Northside disease’. I got used to winos collapsing like umbrellas on the street and the dying young men, many from Mountjoy Prison. I X-rayed one emaciated tattooed prisoner in his hospital bed. He wasn’t out of his teens and he was dying, a bored prison officer sitting beside him reading an Arthur Hailey bestseller. I remember the outrage among the nurses in the operating theatre when one of the notorious Littlejohns, alleged MI6 spies within the IRA, had their varicose veins done on ‘taxpayers money’. Prisoners from ‘The Joy’ were forever turning up in Casualty for X-ray ‘after swallowing razor blades’ or cutlery, any excuse to get out of the prison. One prisoner taped his razor blade under the mattress – we were alerted when the X-ray showed it on his femur instead of in the digestive system. A good thing too, as otherwise he’d have been ‘opened up and his blood all over the place’. There was a story about a prisoner hitting a doctor over the head with a previously stowed crowbar while he and the radiographer were scrutinising the X-ray for foreign bodies. That was before my time, now the swallowing of foreign objects was even more problematic because of the fear of contaminated blood. Blood so memorably described in ‘Lestrygonians’, ‘Hot fresh blood they prescribe for decline. Blood always needed. Insidious. Lick it up, smoking hot, thick sugary‘. In the middle of all my X-ray activities, I was shakily beginning to follow Bloom.
Ulysses is, among many other things, a hymn to Dublin so I was certainly in the right place on Eccles Street. I say hymn because Ulysses is far more of a poem to me than a novel. It is the opposite of a page-turner, meant to be looked at or listened to – as Beckett said of Finnegan’s Wake – a single page so dense, we can never get to the end of it. The short chapter, that makes up ‘Lestrygonians’ episode – just over twenty-three pages in the Alma Classics edition – can never be paraphrased, its incantatory prose endlessly layered.
My twenty-five year old self wasn’t too keen on Bloom when I first encountered him in the Calypso episode, relishing his breakfast kidney and lusting behind the slavey’s ‘moving hams’. I was impressed with the precise onomatopoeia of the cat’s ‘mrkrgnao’ although I hated Molly’s breasts being described as ‘bubs’ and their slope compared to a ‘she-goat’s udder’. I was horrified altogether to be subjected to a description of Bloom and his thoughts while sitting on the toilet. Hades was an improvement because I always had a taste for lugubrious grave-gazing and contemplation of death and I sympathised with Bloom the outsider. But ‘Lestrygonians’ was where I fell completely in love in Bloom.
‘Lestrygonians’ is simply about Bloom’s search to find a bite to eat at lunchtime in Dublin, who he meets and what he sees and of course like everything in Ulysses, it is much more than that. It is first and foremost – with more than a nod to Homer’s cannibal Lestrygonians – about consumption and how it forms us and consumes us in turn. Bloom sees this everywhere at this ‘worst hour of the day. Vitality. Dull, gloomy: hate this hour. Feel as if I had been eaten and spewed’. His humane eye ranges over everything he sees, the hungry gulls and the terrier lapping with zest the ‘sick knuckly cud’ of his own vomit. His eye is internal as well as external, not even missing a chance to put himself in the place of the cannibals, ‘white missionary too salty’. He imagines the vats at Guinness’s brewery where rats get in. ‘Drink themselves bloated as big as a collie floating’. His advertising canvasser’s eye notes the business side of consumption, throwing up interesting anthropological clues for the modern reader, like the doctor advertising his cure for the clap in public toilets. But he always returns to the subject of hunger, the red-sashed Sandwich Man, Y, pulling ‘a hunk of bread from under his foreboard’, the child with her ‘dress in flitters’. Dying and birth, everything is happening, Mrs Purefoy has been in labour for three days, beasts are waiting to be ‘pole-axed’. It’s part of the poetry, the negative capability where this man – who eats with relish the inner organs of ‘beats and fowl’, who despises the poetical vegetarian types with their ‘weggebobbles’ and ‘nutsteak’ … ‘To give you the idea you are eating rumpsteak. Absurd’. – can be so repulsed by the savagery, the ‘dirty eaters’ in the Burton restaurant that by one o’clock he has momentarily embraced vegetarianism, ‘after all there’s a lot in that vegetarian fine flavour of things from the earth, garlic of course …’
All the while, Bloom is making a gigantic effort not to imagine what might happen between Molly and Blazes Boylan at four o’clock that afternoon. Is it this sublimation that puts the rest of Dublin under his phenomenally microscopic eye? The flakes of pastry in the gusset of Mrs Breen’s dress, the daub of flour on her cheek, the loose stockings of A.E. Russell’s companion, the drip from Nosey Flynn’s nose, nothing escapes Bloom. He is in all states, sympathises with Mrs Breen while at the same time deploring her shabby clothes, ‘that dowdy toque, three old grapes to take the harm out of it … She used to be a tasty dresser’. While she sympathises with him over Dignam’s death, he’s mentally humming:
Your funeral’s tomorrow
While you’re coming through the rye
It’s funny and not all dark either, his memories of Molly are filled with sunshine at the choir picnic, her ‘elephantgrey dress, with the braided frogs. Mantailored with the covered buttons … just beginning to plump it out … rabbit pie … people looking after her. Happy. Happier then …’ Towards the end of this episode, he remembers the Hill of Howth with Molly, the famous seedcake in his mouth, kissing her ‘sticky gumjelly lips’. And this increases the poignancy of the moment on Kildare Street at the very end when he thinks he sees Molly’s lover, Blazes Boylan. ‘Is it? Almost certain. Won’t look. Wine in my face. Why did I? Too heady … Not see. Not see, Get on’.
Politics, police, Parnell’s brother – ‘poached eyes on ghost’, Bloom’s scientific interests, advertising ideas, all these are here, too and more. He questions himself. In the midst of his disgust in the Burton restaurant, Bloom asks, ‘Am I like that? See ourselves as others see us. Hungry man is an angry man. Working tooth and jaw. Don’t! O! A bone!’ Everywhere Bloom looks, he sees our universal human hunger:
A barefoot Arab stood over the grating, breathing in the fumes. Deaden the gnaw of hunger that way. Pleasure or pain is it? Penny dinner. Knife and fork chained to the table.
‘Dirty Arab’ was an expression used in North Cork when I was growing up and I often wondered where the racism came from until I read this passage and realised it must have originated from the term street Arab and wasn’t racist at all. Or at least, not directly. I was surprised too to read that ‘fruitarians’ and ‘nutsteaks’ were around in 1904 although I still wonder about the exact nature of the ‘weggebobble’, which sounds suspiciously like an escapee from Finnegans Wake. One never knows, there are endless surprises. I assumed for years that Joyce had invented ‘galoptious’. It seemed a perfect portmanteau word, straight out of Lewis Carroll. But Sam Slote’s notes trace it to the OED.
Vegetarianism has always been on my mind. I’ve been vegetarian on and off for years but never satisfied that it went far enough. By the end of the nineties, it seemed to me that Leonardo Da Vinci was right. We are stealing the calves’ milk. The appalling cruelty of the dairy industry seemed to me a crime against motherhood. I had to be a vegan. But despite all I knew, the horrors I found out, it was easier said than done. I fought myself for years, never able to resist a nice bit of brie or gorgonzola for that matter or even worse, convinced sometimes that I ‘needed’ meat. I knew exactly the deliciousness of Bloom’s ‘relish of disgust’ although Bloom counted his strips of gorgonzola as vegetarian. I couldn’t. I forced myself to read more painful truths about animal slavery to make sure I wouldn’t waver. For over two years now, I have been on the straight and narrow, enjoying vegan cooking, making my own bread, not missing the old foods. Happy. That is until last October when I was overcome by the most appalling craving for toasted cheese. It raged through me every day for two weeks, I could almost see the old Catechism devil at my elbow, whispering that nobody would know. I’d hardly know myself. That I only had to quickly slip a block of Emmenthal into my ‘cruelty-free’ vegan shoulder-bag. It would be ‘just the once’.
And then out of the blue, James Joyce came to the rescue. Alma Classics’ new edition of Ulysses arrived in the post. This is the best edition I’ve seen, with just enough notes from Trinity ‘Scholard’, Sam Slote, to let the reader wander free without being choked in academic surmise. I picked it up and it fell open at ‘Lestrygonians’. I read about ‘Staggering Bob’ again. What did it mean? I looked it up – very easy to do with this edition – and found out that ‘Staggering Bob’ was veal from a calf so young, his legs were still wobbling, not even able to stand up straight before he was slaughtered. I burst into tears and I wrote this poem. By the time the poem was finished, my craving for cheese was gone and hasn’t troubled me since. Whether it will return or not is another question. If it does, I will reach for my bible, hope again to be ‘saved … washed by the Blood of the Lamb’.
Truly man is the king of beasts, for his brutality exceeds them. We live by the death of others. We are burial places…Endless numbers of these animals shall have their little children taken from them, ripped open, and barbarously slaughtered.
Leonardo Da Vinci Notebooks
Cheese digests all but itself. Mighty cheese.
– Have you a cheese sandwich?
– Yes sir.
Ulysses by James Joyce
Toasted cheese featured in one of my earliest picture books –
Granddad on the mountain toasting a slice on the end
of a long fork in an abridged edition of Heidi.
Daddy brought home strange lumps of leftover
rubbery stuff for the cats although they seemed
to prefer Cadburys milk chocolate. I never stopped
to think where the neverending stream of milk came from –
milk and whey was and is in everything
and especially at Rathduff Cheese factory –
stories of workers falling into outsize vats
like the giant saucepans of fairy tales.
But these vats couldn’t possibly be filled by the work
of homely milkmaids on three legged stools.
The cruel river of milk came from elsewhere, like babies
and the queer dreams caused by eating cheese.
I’m thinking of toasted Emmenthal sandwiches –
the holey cheese reminiscent of cute mice in cartoons –
while reading Joyce’s Lestragonians with whole-body prickling horror
and still envying broken-hearted Bloom
his Gorgonzola and Burgundy,
sitting up at the polished counter in Byrnes.
Take away that. Lubricate. A nice salad, cool as a cucumber.
Tom Kernan can dress. And Costcutters might sell Stilton.
Better to get it all over in one go,
stay up late tonight for once and for all
eating everything on The Cheese Board.
When major crimes are being committed,
elephants butchered alive for their ivory –
can I not have a bit of cheese and tomato
and maybe some olives as well
but meh Bloom said wretched brutes waiting at the cattle market
and I wept over Staggering Bob – veal from a butchered
tottering day-old calf. It’s easier for people to think his
mother doesn’t know or care so they can glug down his milk,
or cream or crème fraiche or White Russians.
Why are the cows lowing?
Waiting to be pole-axed, Moo. Poor trembling calves.
That farm in the Cotswolds, Easter 1999
Liadain got to milk Buttercup the single Jersey
cow on a sheep farm full of double-jointed jumping lambs,
pure Eden – until we discovered Billy the calf with the chocolate curls locked
away in the dark. ‘His mother’s milk is too rich for
him,’ the farmer was smiling at the soft city slickers.
He hoped for another Gulf War, he said war was good for
the farmers, it was evening when he said that and
the sun seemed to be shooting into the earth as he spoke.
And Billy cried as Buttercup lowed and looked picturesque
in the dusk like a romantic wrapper on a bar
of Swiss chocolate. Or one of those Anchor cows getting ready
to play football on a TV ad. And I can’t stand any of it.
Packets of M&S sirloin wrapped with
pictures of dappled meadows and photos of
Honest John farmers. Bloom said it. We’re all savages,
bad savages. If you can imagine cows
frolicking with footballs, then you must imagine their pain.
If the rich want to slobber in cruelty, don’t make up stories
of happy foie gras, Fortnum and Mason.
Grandmother Cotter and the servants laughed indulgently
when Daddy cried for his calf going to market.
‘Like a pure spoilt fool over animals all his life,’ Mammy said.
Uncle Tommy was a proper man. ‘And don’t forget no one loved
horses more.’ Tommy bred greyhounds for coursing,
maintained that to see a cat relaxing in a yard was a sign
the dogs were ‘pure useless.’
It is tiring and painful, easier to let it go. Like
when the Brits accused the Boers of using Dumdum bullets
which they invented themselves for India, the Boers said
they only used them on the blacks or the elephants and everyone
said okay then… White missionary too salty, mutters Bloom
the outcast, ruminating on cannibals. Like pickled pork.
Expect the chief consumes the parts of honour. Cauls, mouldy tripes
windpipes, faked and minced up. With regards
to the exploitation of cows, surely not, my sister said in the
old patronising voice. Bubble and squeak. Butchers’ buckets wobble lights.
Give us that brisket off the hook. Plup. Surely not, they said
when the Jews were melted down for lampshades
and soap. Rawhead and bloody bones. Flayed glasseyed sheep hung
from their haunches, sheepsnouts bloodypapered snivelling nosejam
on sawdust. Top and lashers going outand still I’m heading
for the door, ripping up the zipof my parka,
stopping to tie my shoelaces tight when
‘A minute on the lips, forever on the hips,’ says
another disembodied voice from the 70s.
Substituting conscience for hips does the trick
for now. I go out into the crisp-leaved October night,
not seeing the amberglowing copper beech on Balls Pond Road
but windowless artificially-lit factory-farm sheds, hiding
in the dark countryside, their drugged-up
desensitised workers reaping their depraved harvest.
Who on earth thinks these people are chosen
for their humanity? Peace and war depend
on some fellow’s digestion. Religions.
Christmas turkeys and geese. Slaughter of innocents.
Eat, drink and be merry. Then casual wards full after.
Kneel for a while with the fruit jellies,
peering at the tiny print– it’s gelatin in every bag and
the E120 in Skittles comes from the Brazilian Cochineal insects
boiled alive. 70,000 make one pound of natural cochineal stain
so mothers won’t have to worry about hyperactivity
and the sweets are still seduction red.
Am I pure spoilt too like Daddy?
What about big Brazilian families with mouths to feed?
Mouths, mouths, and worst of all, the hungry famished gull
of my own mouth now. I buy 4 Mr Tom
Turkish peanut brittle bars eat them all in one go,
still thinking of Bloom and his Gorgonzola.
Splintering Mr Tom between my teeth,
I try not to think of other nights of temptation
streaming out ahead of me as I watch Taking
Root a documentary about Wangari Maathai
and her Kenyan women, getting over Colinisation,
planting trees. Later, I dream that I’ve joined the Mau Mau
wake late in a room full of sun with hungry cats
poking at me. One more day,
a murderer reprieved.
Martina Evans’ new poetry collection Through the Glass Mountain in out in June from Bloom Books.
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis